A first look at Ziba's new Holst-designed headquarters [updated]
On Wednesday afternoon Sohrab Vossoughi, founder of Ziba, and John Holmes of Holst Architecture led a tour of Ziba's new Pearl District headquarters. The multidisciplinary design and branding agency is set for an August move-in.
First we stood outside the building, where the west-facing facade is particularly dramatic. Looking like a picture frame, it consists of metal panels that protrude slightly from the rest of the facade. The building is set back from the street slightly, which allows an extra buffer of wood slats parallel to the sidewalk, pairing nicely with the glass to create a warm, transparent feeling at the pedestrian level. Setting the building slightly back from the street also allows a cantilevering effect with the metal picture frame portion of the upper west facade; it stretches to the property line without infringing public space but still creating a subtly dramatic look.
Holmes and Vossoughi often spoke of deliberate contrasts such as this: between warm wood and cool, crisp metal, or between vast public areas and more intimately-scaled meeting areas, and between luxurious materials and more affordable ones. To some degree, this is a language that virtually any developer, owner or architect could be speaking as they walk you through a contemporary building. But the proof of the Ziba headquarters was right there. It is, at least at first blush, an exceptionally impressive space, but not a pompous one. That's probably not an easy balance to pull off.
The north side of the building, like the west-facing picture-frame facade, is also dramatic, with a two-story glass curtain wall on the second and third floors where Ziba will set up shop (there is retail space on the ground floor).
As Vossoughi and Holmes talked outside, they would take turns talking. "I think what John means to say," you'd hear Vossoughi begin. But they seemed to make a good partnership, with Ziba really seeking to not only create high quality architecture, but to have the design rigidly rooted in function.
"It's really very simple," Vossoughi said. "It's one box on top of another. A metal box floating on a pedestrian plinth."
Inside, after coming up a somewhat large concrete stairway draped in wood panels, one enters the dramatic public areas, double-height and bathed in natural light. This area is called "the street", and it feels a little bit like an airport concourse or other vast public building space such as the glass curtain wall at Memorial Coliseum. In his post about Ziba on the PORT blog, Jeff Jahn compared the natural light permeating the space to the work of legendary 20th century Finnish architect Alvar Aalto; one of only two United States buildings he designed is the Mt. Angel Abbey Library here in Oregon. I'd have to agree: the bountiful yet somehow still soft feeling light in this building made me think of Aalto before any other architect.
The "street" area also includes a series of several conference or meeting rooms, or "pods", that actually take up much more space than the office portion of Ziba. As their business changed from product design to something broader, involving bits of marketing, interior design, communications and other disciplines, Ziba found its employees were spending an overwhelming amount of their time in common areas where teams, or "tribes" as Vossoughi called them, can work together on various projects. So the desk areas at Ziba are very small, compact and all out in the open, just a series of workstations along common counter areas, with no cubicle divisions - even Vossoughi's is tiny and completely open - and pushed towards the back of the space (seen in the first photo immediately below). The pods alternate with open desk areas, and the whole sequence of spaces is connected by a series of sliding doors. In that sense, the interior also felt reminiscent of Japanese architecture.
The Ziba HQ even has a series of small private spaces for clients to unwind in before or after one of their intensive days-long research sessions. Say a client can flies in from another city and arrives in the morning with a long work session scheduled at Ziba but no opportunity to freshen up at his or her hotel. The client can just hop into one of these rooms straight from the taxi and take advantage of the client rooms before meeting: take a shower in one of the private bathrooms, watch a flat-screen TV, recline on a sofa and reach for a beverage in his or her nearby fridge. Before you know it they'll be putting a mint on your laptop.
Oh, and did I mention there's an auditorium as well? That's on the far east end of the building. One entrance to the auditorium from the offices is clad in angled wood, and looks like the entry to a chapel - recalling Pietro Belluschi's midcentury churches. Inside, the concrete bleachers are reminiscent of the Allied Works-designed Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, as is the public deck nearby overlooking the Pearl District. This is not to imply copying in any way, of course. The auditorium will be a great addition to the neighborhood. And if the W+K auditorium is a little more dramatic, Ziba has a lot more interesting new exterior than the renovated warehouse facade for the ad agency. Again, though, we're talking Mercedes and BMW here. They're both excellent.
The economy obviously is very tough right now, but so far Holst Architecture has not laid off a single employee, I'm told. Just as importantly, the firm has seized the opportunity to branch out from the mostly residential buildings they've done in recent the past, such as the Belmont Lofts, Clinton Condos, Thurman Street Lofts and 937, and the the larger scale renovations the firm did further back in the last decade like Ecotrust and the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
If I compared Holst's Ziba headquarters to Allied Works' W+K headquarters just now, perhaps there's also a comparison to be made in careers. W+K launched Brad Cloepfil into a new level of international recognition that made possible high-profile commissions like the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Museum of Art & Design in New York, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Clifford Clyfford Still museum. Perhaps Ziba could become the calling card for Holst as they branch out of Portland, potentially, with a new level of scale, project types and recognition.
If any firm is ready to be the next famous Portland architecture firm after Brad Cloepfil and Allied, it's Holst Architecture. Ziba may have only been under construction for the last year, but Holst has been building to this moment for well over a decade. It's nice to see them grab the brass ring.
And of course this project isn't just a Holst design, but a collaborative project with the clients. Because Ziba is a design firm too, this was more of a collaboration than most. And while Holst is capable of doing an excellent building without Ziba, it also seems clear that Ziba pushed Holst to do some of its best work.
A few years ago I was at Holst's office talking with principal and co-founder John Holmes about his frustration over a project that was being killed due in part to city and neighborhood politics over height and design. Exasperated, I remember John saying, "I just want to draw shit, you know?" I think Holmes, Jeff Stuhr and the Holst team want to create real beauty, and Holmes in particular is a true visual artist. At the same time, Ziba seemed to add to this project the rigor of function: every aspect of the buiding and its materials having a purpose. Although it's not to say Holst is without rigor, or that Ziba can't appreciate beauty for its own sake, that creative tension seems to have contributed to the breakthrough of this superb building.
It's also encouraging how this building will give Ziba more of a real presence in town. For too long the company has occupied a Pearl District storefront with reflective windows and not even a sign in front. If Portland is going to become the international design capital that its leadership is seeking, we need top local design companies like Ziba sitting out on their front porch, so to speak, instead of staying inside with all the shades drawn. Both literally and metaphorically, that has now changed, and Ziba is basking in light.